Get ready for etiquette books on when it's OK to reboot your sinuses in public, and the teenager-ization of senior citizens. Here are some predictions from the experts on how human cultures will transform over the next hundred years.
You hear a lot about "next gen" science and technology, but not so much about will happen to human societies and cultures in the future. To fill the gap, we asked three futurists and one science fiction writer what social changes we should expect to see in the next century.
Burning Man vs. Walking Dead
One of the biggest questions is whether human civilization will even be around in a hundred years. As futurist Jamais Cascio put it, we may be facing a Walking Dead future full of blasted cities and zombie pandemics. But if we manage to survive plagues, nuclear destruction, famine and environmental collapse, our social landscape might look like something ripped from the annual desert art festival Burning Man.
Cascio told io9 via email that the Burning Man future is often the "default" scenario for tomorrow's culture among many futurists. It's one of "expanded rights," with mainstream acceptance for everything from gay marriage and group marriage, to human-robot romances and even more unusual relationships. It would also involve "acceptance of cultural experimentation, and the dominance of the leisure society [where] robots do all of the work [and] humans get to play/make art/take drugs/have sex." In some ways, this vision hasn't changed much since Aldous Huxley wrote about a hedonistic pseudo-Utopia in his 1932 novel Brave New World. Freed from necessity, humans can experiment with new kinds of social arrangements and turn life into a game.
But now it's time for us to update our visions of the future.
New Kinds of Tribalism
A more realistic scenario than blissed-out free love cities involves people coalescing into communities that have never existed before. These communities might be like internet forums writ large: groups of like-minded people who come together because of shared interests rather than shared geographical spaces, religions, or ethnicities. If we assume that humanity progresses toward civilizations of abundance, then these groups might be able to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. But they wouldn't have to do it by building an island or setting up an underground city. They might do it using information filtering technology.
Cascio suggests that super-advanced versions of Google Glasses might allow "reality manipulation" of the everyday world. He said:
Imagine a city street where not one of the hundred people around you sees the same version of reality, the interface systems translating the physical and social environment into something interesting and/or culturally acceptable. (This would also be a remarkable tool for mind control in a totalitarian regime.)
So you might share a physical space with a bunch of people whom you never see. Instead, you'd only see your fellow robot enthusiasts, or frog worshipers, or members of your gaming guild. With brain implants that tweak our senses, we could even manipulate the smell and feel of the world to be acceptable to different groups. A building that feels dry and warm to one person could feel cool and damp to another.
Science fiction writer Maureen McHugh, author of After the Apocalypse, added that such a scenario doesn't necessarily mean people will never experience diversity. She told io9:
In some ways we can become more insular — libertarians will talk only to libertarians, for example. On the other hand it puts us in constant contact with people outside our same background. I might only be listening to liberals, but some of them are Korean Americans. Their politics may be similar, but there are other differences. They are of my tribe when it comes to issues that are important in one way, but not of my tribe in ways that I have to adjust for. I may start excusing ways that they are not of my tribe because I'm so interested in the ways they are.
In a sense, these new, isolated communities based on shared interests might help eradicate painful differences that have caused friction between groups in the past. People who band together because they only want to eat raw food may learn to overcome racist feelings about people in their tribe who are of different races. But McHugh warns that this is far from a Utopian scenario. "We end up denying a lot of differences and doing the same thing we've always done: ignore everything that makes us uncomfortable."
The new tribalism won't be a great moment in human togetherness. It will just allow us to create new kinds of communities that thrive only because we've agreed to ignore each other's differences.
New Brains and New Etiquette
We'll still be the same old clannish monkeys, but what if we start modifying our bodies with technological implants and biological tweaks? Human culture will have to change if Cascio is right about a scenario where wearable computers can change our perception of reality. And University of Oxford futurist Anders Sandberg has suggested that humans might even rewire our brains to make ourselves feel more love and altruism for each other.
McHugh is dubious that rewiring our brains will really change us all that much. "We've been screwing with our brains since the beginning of time," she scoffed. "I use my forefinger to tap out letters when I send a text. People who grew up using consoles use their thumbs. They have more neurons mapped to their thumbs and I have more mapped to my forefingers — our brains are that much different. It's small but real." Our brains are plastic, but our basic goals for ourselves not. The more we alter ourselves, she continued, the more "we'll reinforce a lot of who we are tribally." She believes that people won't want to change our brains so that we're more willing to accept outsiders. "We won't like that idea," she asserted.
Still, we may have to change our etiquette a lot as our bodies become more and more packed with technology. Cascio said:
By 2113 we'll have gone through a dozen or so technosocial-fashion generations. Smartphones give way to tablets to phablets to wearables to implantables to swallowables to replaceable eyeballs to neo-sinus body-nanofab systems (using mucous as a raw material) to brainwebs to body-rentals . . . and those are increasingly considered "so 2110." And with all of these (or whatever really emerges), there are shifting behavioral norms. Don't look at your phone at the dinner table. Don't replace your eyeball in public. Don't reboot your neo-sinus in church . . .
We may become cyborgs, but we're still going to care about behaving politely in public. In some ways, this idea dovetails with what McHugh said about clinging to our tribal ways even when we have the opportunity to engineer ourselves to be less clannish. The main reason we have rules of politeness is to govern social interactions between people who are not part of our immediate group. If everybody shares the same social assumptions you don't need to watch your behavior and use your inside voice.
Sinus rebooting etiquette is only necessary in a world where you expect to be in church with people who don't really like the idea of mucus-based technology. Your tribe may be OK with it, but when you're out in public you have to mind your manners.
The Teenager-ization of Old People
One thing seems certain about the future. There will be a lot more people in it who are over the age of 70, and probably over 100, too. Futurist and Carnegie-Mellon University public policy researcher Denise Caruso believes there will have to be a radical shift in the way elderly people live. She told io9 "there will need to be some kind of movement for a new social arrangement at least, a new kind of retirement planning maybe, that provides a way for groups of people to pool their resources and create their own "assisted living" homes." Caruso talked about how one of her friends wants to rally a bunch of older people to do this right now by taking over a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge. They'd fill the entire place with seniors who love the cheap rates, the cleaning services, the affordable restaurant, and the company of other retirees like themselves.
This Howard Johnsons idea sounds a lot like a boarding school or a college dorm, and that's the point. As more people are living long past their childrearing and working years, they're going to be like teens again. They'll have less money, but more time — and probably more energy for mischief than any previous generation of retirees. What will we call this new group of people who live like college students but have a lifetime of experiences? Maybe centurions. Or oldagers.
Caruso is pragmatic about how oldagers will create their new communities:
I don't expect we will get the government to support any of this, but I can imagine that some clever and compassionate baby-boomer financial types will find some loopholes in the tax code that will support these kinds of group living arrangements. Kind of a tenants-in-common thing, but on a large scale and maybe protected by nonprofit-type laws or something. I'm envisioning that people get some big tax break if they create their communities when they're, say, 50-ish. Then they're established, and they can get all the systems set up. Where my mom lives, for example, there's a really good doctor who comes every two weeks to check up on all the residents. You could do the same thing with shopping, too.
Transhumanist philosopher Natasha Vita-More thinks these oldagers are going to be even weirder than tomorrow's eyeball-removing teenagers. They'll be backing their brains up onto computers all the time, so they will exist simultaneously in the real world and in digital simulation space. She told io9 that in a century, this kind of backup technology will put us in the strange position of being able to choose to die when we want — or to die for just a little while, like taking a much-needed vacation:
All indicators are pointing toward people living well past 100 years, and in good health and vitality. Aging is slowing down and will be reversed to a large degree . . . And during this timeframe, it will be not only customary but highly consequential to back up our brains on a moment-to-moment basis. Further, transferring and/or copying a person’s brain, including consciousness and mind, onto computational systems will become a trend. At this juncture, it will be optimal for a person to co-exist in real time (the physical world) and within simulations (virtual environments, for example).
In light of these changes, the very notion of death will be redefined to include new criteria for death, including a person who wants to drop out of society for a span of a year or tens of years and then reenter life. The very notion of time will be changed and become less linear and more exponential. This particular change – the change of the human predetermined biological and genetically programed life span – will be a major shift in consciousness for all humanity . . . A person could select to live longer or not. That will be an individual choice.
We won't banish death, we'll just choose it. Though I'm not sure why anybody would want to die when you could just hang out with a bunch of oldagers and play videogames all day with your sinus implants.
Top image by carlos castilla via Shutterstock. Burning Man photo by Keith Carlsen via Getty. Shiny human upload image by Steven A. Johnson.
You can read Cascio's full comments to me on IEET.